- Part-Time Teaching Award (2007)
It would be easy to write off those students who find mathematics to be particularly challenging. An instructor, especially a part-timer juggling many professional and family responsibilities, could scarcely be blamed for underestimating these students' other strengths and deciding that they just aren't college material. But that instructor wouldn't be Patricia Lewis.
Lewis, in fact, was so determined to help her developmental math students become proficient that she built her master's thesis around accommodating the diverse learning styles among this population. Her hypothesis, that most developmental math students are nonvisual learners (that is, they absorb ideas best through listening or hands-on activities), has been borne out by the results of her research among students and by the success of her highly original classroom activities.
Lewis, for example, shares her teaching notes with her students as handouts. The notes contain detailed instructions for working out assigned problems, thereby relieving students of laborious note taking when they could be participating in class discussion, asking questions, and working problems on the board. Also, in a simple yet effective effort to break problems down into their most basic steps, she uses different colors of chalk for different operations. But perhaps her most revolutionary move has been to relax time limits on exams whenever possible, recognizing the fact that many developmental math students experience anxiety and other performance problems when taking traditional math tests, even when they have the skills that are being tested.
Her students respond with a newfound sense of accomplishment, as well as sincere enthusiasm for the study of math. Sometimes it's the first time in their lives that they've had this feeling. "While sitting in your class, listening to your lecture, I kept thinking that if I had had you in at least one of my high school math classes, I might not have to take a refresher for college," one student wrote on a course evaluation. "You were a wonderful teacher!"
"You are not just an instructor or a professor," another student wrote. "You have the honor and responsibility of being a real teacher, and you are one of the best I have ever seen. I am delighted with the fact that this time around I didn't feel so lost and confused; I actually started enjoying the challenge and even tried extra problems for practice. It was fun! I have never said that about any math class before, ever."
Despite her busy schedule (she also teaches at Ivy Tech North Central and Davenport University's South Bend campus), Lewis makes herself available to students and becomes familiar with their instructional needs. "She always comes to her classes about 15 minutes early and uses that time to check with students about their homework assignments, individually or in groups," says Yu Song, chair of IU South Bend's Department of Mathematical Sciences.
Lewis also encourages collaboration and teamwork among her students. Building these personal relationships has proved compatible with her students' more auditory and tactile approaches to learning. "Class activities that require the student to be tutor as well as tutee foster respect," Lewis says. "Study groups usually evolve from these associations. They feel a responsibility and a connection that promote attendance. Forming bonds with classmates can mean the difference between finding a peer tutor and dropping the class."
When Lewis graduated from the University of Michigan with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering, she never anticipated having a teaching career, though now she says she cannot imagine a life without teaching. She worked for more than a decade in aerospace and other high-tech manufacturing positions and was raising her family when the opportunity arose to teach part time. Though Lewis had always loved math, she had also observed family members with learning disabilities, and she had developed compassion for those who struggle with mathematical concepts. "She has seen firsthand that challenges can be overcome, if people are given the chance and opportunity," says Alfred J. Guillame Jr., vice chancellor for academic affairs at IU South Bend.
The opportunity to serve such students is what motivates Lewis. "The college experience is what we are trying to promote," she says. "We should create a curriculum plan and an environment that promote student involvement and thus student success. If I perform these tasks, I feel that I have done my job and done it well."